Official checks on childminders have descended into chaos with a growing backlog of safety inspections threatening government plans to make affordable child care available for working parents.
Inspectors from Ofsted, the education watchdog, are supposed to register 70 per cent of childminders within 12 weeks but some carers complain that they have been forced to wait up to a year for clearance.
The process is designed to weed out paedophiles and others unsuitable for working with children. The delays have fuelled fears that Ofsted could see a repeat of the chaos caused by the Criminal Records Bureau last summer when a backlog of 100,000 unvetted checks on teachers forced some schools to postpone the start of term.
Ofsted is confident that it will have cleared the backlog by the March deadline agreed when the agency took over responsibility for inspecting child care from local authorities in Sep-tember 2001.
Inspectors must recheck all 105,000 nurseries and childminders by March. The latest figures show that only 84,000 have been inspected. Even more worryingly, only 22,000 of 29,852 new applications since Ofsted took control had even received a first visit from inspectors by December, let alone been vetted.
The Government promised a huge expansion in numbers of nurseries and childminders to help parents return to work. It pledged to create 900,000 new childcare places for 1.6 million children by 2004, including free nursery places for all children aged three and four.
Early years experts fear the delays will drive prospective childminders out of the profession as they are forced to take other jobs rather than wait to be cleared. Stephen Burke, director of the Daycare Trust, said: "This is worrying news for parents who have had their expectations raised by the promised expansion."
Mr Burke urged parents not to fall back on unregistered carers. "Registered child care gives parents reassurance about the quality and safety of the care their children receive. We would urge parents to always use registered carers."
Ofsted partly blames the problem on delays at the Criminal Records Bureau, the troubled agency set up last April to check on all people who want to work with children. Errors on application forms from potential child carers had also held up the process, an Ofsted spokeswoman added.
She insisted the targets would be met by March but admitted that the registration was still taking too long. "We are not yet achieving the rate for registering childminders within 12 weeks, although we do not have to achieve it until the end of March. We are very conscious of the need to improve this," she said, adding that inspectors werevetting applicants more quickly as they became familiar with the process.
She stressed that the agency had met its target to register 70 per cent of nurseries' new applications in 25 weeks and to investigate 70 per cent of complaints about childcare providers within 30 days.
Unison, the union repre-senting Ofsted's inspectors, fears that staff are under so much pressure to clear the backlog that the quality of checks could suffer.
Union officials met David Bell, the chief inspector, last month to complain that inspectors were being forced to work more than 50 hours a week to meet the targets. Fiona Westwood, of Unison, said: "It is the quality of inspection that matters, not quantity."
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